#115) City Lights (1931)
OR “Who Wants to See a Millionaire?”
Directed & Written by Charles Chaplin
Class of 1991
The Plot: A lovable Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) falls for a beautiful blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill). Due to a misunderstanding, she believes he is rich, and the Tramp is afraid that she will not love him back if she knows the truth. At the same time the Tramp befriends an alcoholic, suicidal millionaire (Harry Myers) who only recognizes the Tramp when he drinks. When the Tramp and the girl learn of a new operation that could restore her sight, the Tramp tries to help raise the money. Comedy (and one of the best endings ever) ensue.
Why It Matters: The NFR salutes Chaplin for “deftly combin[ing] comedy with pathos” and includes an essay by Chaplin expert Jeffrey Vance.
But Does It Really?: This is another film that I can’t touch. “City Lights” is pretty flawless and is a showcase for Chaplin at the height of his artistic prowess. Everything you need to know about the characters and their story is told in the visuals. It took Chaplin two years and a record-breaking number of retakes for him to feel he got it right, but luckily the world agreed that he had indeed gotten it right. Some will argue “Modern Times” or “The Great Dictator” is better, but “City Lights” is the perfect Chaplin film to represent all that he brought to the silent era.
Everybody Gets One: Virginia Cherrill was cast almost by chance to play the blind girl, and used her natural nearsightedness to convey the character’s impairment. She and Chaplin clashed quite a bit during filming (she was even fired at one point), but Chaplin later admitted his tension with Cherrill was him taking out his workload frustration and stress on her. Cherrill’s acting career never really took off after “City Lights”, but she was very briefly married to Cary Grant in the ‘30s.
Wow, That’s Dated: Gramophones, cigarette girls, and newsies! Also, if adjusted for inflation, the blind girl’s rent of $22 would now be about $355 (I’ll take it!) and the millionaire’s offer of $1,000 would be about $16,000.
Wow, That’s Still a New Concept Back Now: Sliced bread! It had only been around for three years and was the best thing since bread was wrapped!
Seriously, Oscars?: Perhaps because it was a silent film in the midst of the talkie craze, or perhaps because of Chaplin’s indie status within a town run by the studios, “City Lights” was completely ignored by the Oscars. It is still one of the main poster children for Oscar abuse.
- Just a reminder that Chaplin’s most iconic character is an endearing vagrant.
- This has got to be the only film billed as “A romantic comedy in pantomime”.
- Released four years after the advent of sound film, Chaplin believed this to be a fad and went ahead with his silent picture. He did, however, compose an entire score to be played on the film’s soundtrack, the first of many Chaplin compositions.
- The speeches made at the beginning are dubbed by Charlie Brown’s parents on kazoo.
- Everybody loves the boxing scene, but I love the bit of physical comedy that the Tramp has with the sidewalk elevator. Chaplin’s perfectionism pays off in one take.
- The other thing that puts Chaplin ahead of other silent filmmakers is that he knows when and how to use intertitles; sparingly, only when you can’t convey an idea through visuals, and with as few words as possible.
- I get the feeling that we talked more openly about suicide back then than we are now. What happened? Is it because of the Great Depression?
- Chaplin loves bits where he eats something that isn’t food. In this film he chews on a streamer, but it’s no shoe.
- This movie brings up the interesting point that DUIs are hilarious.
- My favorite bit player in this film is the taxi driver who gets offended when the Tramp (having accidentally swallowed a whistle) didn’t call for him. Whoever you are, I salute you!
- I love that the millionaire’s cruise luggage is labeled “To Europe”. Care to narrow it down?
- The Tramp takes a job to pay off a medical bill. Some things never change.
- How come undershirt sales didn’t plummet when Chaplin took his shirt off?
- Nope, just ignore the wire holding the Tramp up during the boxing match.
- A Chaplin film set in a prison, now that I’d like to see. The finale better involve escaping through a poster of Mabel Normand.
- Now I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’, but wouldn’t the blind girl immediately recognize the Tramp by his scent? Did prison life change him that much?
- And then she recognizes him and she feels his hand and it’s just perfect and I’m not crying you’re crying!
- “City Lights” is everyone’s favorite Chaplin film, from Orson Welles to Stanley Kubrick to Woody Allen to Chaplin himself.
- This film was remade in Turkey as 1983’s “En Büyük Şaban”.
- Following the success of this film, Chaplin debated about finally making a full talkie. Still having trepidations about converting the Tramp’s appeal to sound, he compromised with another silent film with a full soundtrack; the appropriately titled “Modern Times”.
Further Viewing: Watch a genius at work in this rare footage of Charles Chaplin directing the first flower girl scene.